Pioneer Packhorses

E. J. Glave and Jack Dalton blazed a trail from tidewater to the Yukon

In the last few years of the 19th century, Alaska was viewed by most Americans as a land of mystery and wonder, unknown and unexplored, and therefore filled with stories of potentially dangerous adventure. Popular magazines and newspapers seized every opportunity to reward their readers with exciting tales of this new land, and the public’s appetite for news of the north country seemed insatiable, with avid readers eagerly anticipating each new episode. 

And so, in 1890 a five-man expedition was formed, under the auspices of the highly popular weekly serial Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, with the goal of exploring the largely unknown mountainous area between the Yukon Territory and the coast of Alaska. Led by E. Hazard Wells, who would later write extensively of his travels in the north as a correspondent and photographer for the Cincinnati Post, the small group included the scientist and astronomer A. B. Schanz, F. B. Price, John “Jack” Dalton, and English journalist and travel writer E. J. Glave. 

Edward James Glave was, at 28, already well-known as an associate of the African explorer Henry M. Stanley, who was famous for his successful search for the missionary and explorer David Livingstone. Leslie’s newspaper hoped Glave would provide its readers with the kind of harrowing adventure stories which he had popularized in his lectures on the Belgian Congo, and Glave did not disappoint. 

When the expedition reached Kusawa Lake, southwest of Whitehorse, the party split up, with Glave and Dalton turning west to return to the coast while the others continued north to the Yukon River. The two men had found qualities to appreciate in each other, and Glave would later write of Dalton, “He was a most desirable partner, having excellent judgement, cool and deliberate in time of danger, and possessed of great tact in dealing with Indians. He thoroughly understood horses, was as good as any Indian in a cottonwood dugout or skin canoe, and as a camp cook I never met his equal.”

Jack Dalton had some experience in northern travel; he had been with the noted explorer Frederick Schwatka four years previously in an ill-fated attempt to climb Mt. St. Elias. When Schwatka’s health failed the expedition was aborted, but Dalton remained in the area, successfully prospecting for coastal coal deposits. 

Glave and Dalton followed the Tatashinshini River to the Alsek River, where they purchased a dugout canoe and hired an Indian guide. Their harrowing trip down the whitewater river to the coast was detailed in popular articles and greatly increased interest in this unknown territory. 

The following year, in May of 1891, Glave and Dalton returned to the area to explore the feasibility of freighting from the coast to the interior with packhorses, even though the other freighters warned them that it was a foolhardy idea.

In Seattle they bought “four short, chunky horses weighing about nine hundred pounds each,” and supplied themselves “with the requisite pack-saddles and harness, stores and ammunition,” and then, with their horses and equipment aboard a steamship, they sailed one thousand miles north to “Pyramid Harbor, near the mouth of the Chilkat River, which is by far the most convenient point from which to start for the interior. No horses had ever been taken into the country, and old miners, traders, and prospectors openly pitied our ignorance in imagining the possibility of taking pack-animals over the coast range.” 

Leaving from roughly the current location of Haines, Alaska, Glave and Dalton ran into deep snow in the coast range and were forced to backtrack to the Chilkat village of Klokwan, 24 miles up the Chilkat River from the coast. Their horses enjoyed the abundant grass and the two explorers learned about the local tribesmen, who Glave characterized as “buccaneers and pirates.” He wrote, “The chief, Klenta Koosh, has a strange collection of firearms, and outside his house two iron cannons defend the approach with threatening array—all stolen from a Russian ship which stranded on the Alaskan shore in former days.” 

Toward the end of May Glave and Dalton saddled their horses and struck out again. They towed their horses across the Chilkat River, deep and swift from the melting snows, with a canoe which they further utilized to carry their supplies as far as navigation permitted. Then they once again secured their load on the packhorses and, as Glave explained, “riding on the packsaddles, proceeded on our way along the stony valley of the Kleeheenee, which we had to swim several times on horseback, where the precipitous bluffs on one bank stopped our advance and compelled us to cross. At one place I had a bad fall. The horse I was riding sank into a small bed of quicksand, and, struggling to free himself, reared and fell backward. Fortunately I was thrown off a sufficient distance to be safe from his plunging and kicking, and finally Dalton and I helped him out.”

“Fearing that we might have a lot of soft snow to cross on the summit, we constructed sets of four snow-shoes for our horses. We trimmed some stout young spruce saplings, then lashed these into hoops fourteen inches in diameter, and filled them with plaited rope, each, when finished, resembling the exaggerated head of a lawn-tennis racket. The horse’s hoof was placed in a pad in the center of the shoe, and and a series of loops drawn up and laced around the fetlock kept it in place. When first experimenting with these, a horse would snort and tremble upon lifting his feet. Then he would make the most vigorous efforts to shake them off. Standing on his hind legs, he would savagely paw the air, then quickly tumble onto his forelegs and kick frantically. We gave them daily instruction in this novel accomplishment till each horse was an expert, but our precaution proved unnecessary, for all the snow we crossed during the season was packed hard.”

Glave wrote of crossing the towering coast range and then, “After two more days of hard traveling we reached a wooded bluff overlooking an Indian village. Descending to the banks of a river the course of which we had been following, we fired a couple of rifle shots, which is the Indian signal of approach. Soon a crowd appeared on the opposite bank, and shoved their dugout canoes into the stream; we unsaddled our horses, and swam them across the river, and the Indians carried our belongings over in their canoes. We loaded up again, and a few minutes’ walk took us to the village of Neska-ta-heen. Dalton and I had met these people the previous summer; we then approached this settlement from the north on our way down the Alseck River to the Pacific Ocean. The road over which we now traveled was the direct way from the coast. No glaciers or insurmountable difficulties obstruct this route. Our arrival at this point with the pioneer band of horses is a most important event in Alaskan history, destined in the near future to recive due recognition.” 

Glave and Dalton’s journey over the Coast Range did indeed receive recognition. In the 1900 Annual Report for the Department of the Interior the great geologist Alfred H. Brooks credited them in his report on the Reconnaissance from Pyramid Harbor to Eagle City, Alaska, comprised of six men with 15 packhorses carrying 100 days’ provisions and equipment and following much of their route. Brooks wrote, “E.J. Glave and Jack Dalton, with four pack horses, followed up the Chilkat River, crossed the two forks of the Alsek, and reached the upper end of Lake Kluane, then returned to the coast by the same route. They were the first to use pack horses in Alaskan explorations.” 

Brooks also noted, “Mr. Dalton, of Pyramid Harbor, is the best informed man of the region, and we are much indebted to him for information he furnished us.” 

 Glave and Dalton weathered many adventures with their four packhorses, including several narrow escapes. Through it all they cared for their little band, and Glave wrote, “Everywhere we found convenient camping places, with good water and plenty of feed for our horses, which, although incessantly worried by mosquitos and other flies, remained in good condition. We nursed the little band of horses with the greatest care, attended at once to any soreness or lameness, and loaded very lightly any animal at all unwell. We used them simply for packing our belongings; each of us took charge of two of them, which were led tied one behind the other. Through this wild land the management of four horses proved ample employment for us, combined with our other duties, which consisted of striking camp in the morning, loading up the pack-bags, and saddling up, searching out the trail, cutting roads through timber lands, and at night pitching the tent, unharnessing, stacking away supplies, cooking, and maintaining a constant lookout for our horses.” 

Edward J. Glave wrote a two-part article about their trip, “Pioneer Packhorses in Alaska,”  for The Century magazine, Vol. XLIV, Nos. 5 and 6, September and October, 1892. 

Glave and Dalton never took another journey together, for the Englishman returned to Africa, where he died a few years later, at the age of only 32. Jack Dalton remained in Alaska and blazed a pack trail over their route, setting up trading posts along the way, and during the Klondike Gold Rush he herded cattle over his Dalton Trail to the miners in Dawson City. He eventually moved to Washington state, where he died in 1945 at the age of 89.   ~•~

E. J. Glave’s articles for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and The Century magazine are available online, to read or download, see Resources, page 48. Also see Alaskan Books on page 46, for the 2013 title, Travels to the Alseck, Edward Glave’s Reports, published by the Yukon Native Language Center, Whitehorse, Yukon.